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The not-so-great firewall: Russians rush to evade Putin’s internet crackdown

While the crackdowns are accelerating, don’t expect a new Great Firewall.

Russians are flocking to VPN software and other tools to escape the tightening digital vise created by new Kremlin restrictions on internet access and the retreat of Western technology companies in response to sanctions.

Hear more from Benjamin Powers about this story:

“Russian users are now between two fires,” said Mikhail Klimarev, the executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a nonprofit organization that aims to protect free internet access in Russia. “On the one hand, dictator [Vladimir] Putin and his minions are trying to restrict access to truthful information. On the other hand, Western companies are limiting the already declining internet connectivity.”

The Russian government’s aggressive push to isolate Russia from the wider internet has raised concerns that Putin is attempting to create his own version of China’s “Great Firewall.” But experts told Grid that will be difficult to impose on a country that has had relatively unfettered access to this point, and one that has few homegrown services to fill the gaps left by blocked sites. By contrast, China’s internet developed with tight limits in place, and the country has spawned services like the search engine Baidu and social media app Weibo to meet demand.

Tunneling out

Russians have long used VPNs, or virtual private networks, which can be used to mask a computer’s IP address by bouncing it between different countries. VPNs do so by creating the equivalent of an encrypted tunnel for a user’s internet connection that hides their IP address and those of the sites they visit. In practice, that means a VPN user’s connection is shown as coming from a proxy server, often one located in an entirely different country. The same tool that lets someone watch U.S. Netflix in Nigeria can also be used to access sites banned in Russia.

Ariel Michaeli, founder and CEO of app analytics company AppFigures, said there were a total of 10 million downloads of 121 different VPN apps in Russia over the last 30 days. Putin’s government has now blocked more than 300 major websites, according to Top10VPN.

“I do see VPNs as coming to the rescue in Russia right now for all the obvious reasons,” said Michaeli. “It was a sudden and very abrupt change in demand.” But it’s not clear that the VPNs many Russians flocked to are reputable. Brandless apps were heavily downloaded in the earliest days of the surge in demand, Michaeli said. “They were simply better positioned for organic discovery versus big brands,” he added.

But sanctions and withdrawals by major multinational firms may also have steered Russians to marginal or unproven services. “The refusal of Visa and Mastercard payment systems to work with Russian citizens leads to the fact that Russians cannot pay for access to high-quality VPN services,” Klimarev said.

Grant Baker, a researcher focusing on technology and democracy in Europe and Eurasia at the pro-democracy nonprofit Freedom House, said that when mass censorship occurs, there are upticks in VPN use, but it’s hard to know which ones are secure — and many aren’t. Finding one that is both affordable and secure can be a challenge.

And not everyone knows where to look or even what a VPN is. “The main problem with it is that definitely not all Russians will be able to use them,” said Lukas Andriukaitis, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has monitored Russia for years. “I think not a whole lot of people will know how to use them, or have access to them, or even care to go through all these extra steps to access restricted sites. So this will be a huge restriction in the end.”

There are other digital tools that can help internet users circumvent government restrictions on websites, as Klimarev was quick to note. But many of them require more advanced technical knowledge and thus are likely less accessible to the general public.

“Yes, VPNs are used in Russia,” he said, “and all other known ways to bypass locks. Proxies and all that. There are also unique technologies, including, for example, IP-over-Torrent.”

Hitting the airwaves

The internet isn’t the only way to get information, however.

TV is the king of information in Russia in many ways — and it’s going to remain that way for a while, according to Andriukaitis. The Putin government has forced the shutdown of independent outlets like the television station TV Rain — platforms that “might have reached even more people outside of the Moscow and St. Petersburg bubble,” he said.

Telephone calls are another old-school communication option that can link people across borders. Andriukaitis has been watching with interest the role played by calls to Russians from people outside — perhaps in Poland — explaining to them what is actually going on in Ukraine.

“There are these kinds of new ideas how to bypass the walls and the blocks that are constructed by the Russian government relying not only on new technologies, but also on very old technology,” said Gregory Asmolov, a Russian-born lecturer in the digital humanities department of King’s College London. He remembers being a child in the Soviet Union and searching on shortwave radio for channels such as the BBC and Voice of America.

A not-so-great firewall

The question looming now is whether Putin’s end game is walling off the Russian internet, much as China has done with its Great Firewall.

“The [Russian] government’s really tried to build both the technical capacity and the legal framework to more tightly control the internet,” Baker said. “But I think there are still outstanding questions about the technical capacity.”

And Russia differs from China in significant ways. The growth of internet censorship in China took place alongside the growth of the internet itself — it was baked in from the beginning. Russia’s was not. The country’s internet users rely on many companies, social media and otherwise, from outside the country. That means Russia can’t coerce such firms in the same way that China can with homegrown tech companies.

Andriukaitis likened any attempt at such a project to the Russian army, highlighting the struggles with organization, logistics and capabilities it’s currently facing.

“I think even if they will try to build you the great Russian firewall, it will end in some sort of disaster at the end,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Russian government’s technical and personnel capacity to censor internet usage lags behind the system that China has set up, said Jennifer Pan, an associate professor at Stanford University whose research focuses on communication and authoritarian politics. China’s censorship efforts have been focused, persistent and successful over the long term. And the demand for uncensored information appears to be higher in Russia than in China. “The question is whether, as social media blocks persist, demand will remain high,” said Pan. “In China, when we look at the Instagram block, we saw an uptick in VPN download and what scholars have called the ‘gateway effect’ — people downloaded VPNs to use Instagram primarily for entertainment but ended up on other banned social media platforms (e.g., Twitter) and consumed political information.”

“We could also see this in the longer term for Russia, but it depends on people’s demand for uncensored information (and the extent they are willing to use VPN) and the Russian government’s commitment to blocking access,” she said.

“Internet shutdown and blocking is Putin’s weapon against the people of Russia,” Klimarev said. “I would like to appeal to Western companies not to play on Putin’s side and not make internet access more and more problematic for Russians.”

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